This is a MOST PECULIAR BOOK, by EJO’s standards. It is the only one in the canon that hints that a baby carriage could precede a marriage. Biddy’s Secret has the subtitle—and this might be the only subtitle in all her works—“A Romance of the Abbey Girls,” indicating that it is aimed at the older reader. In fact, the romance is not Biddy’s but that of Ruth Devine, her cousin. This installment includes threatened murder-suicide, spousal abandonment and proposed child abandonment, a reference to “white slavery,” which was the pre-WWII term for sex trafficking, deception, and references to devious Frenchmen who lead English girls astray by pretending to marry them in an unofficial ceremony. I meant it when I said it was peculiar!
In the last installment we saw Maidlin shattered at being, as she saw it, rejected by her beloved Rosamund. She has used Ros as a shield between herself and the world though in past episodes she has also been shown as able to cope if the situation really calls for it. For several installments Oxenham has been carefully setting up Maidlin’s Problem; now we will have its resolution. Jen Robins, now Lady Marchwood (one of two, recall?), is one of the few people who perceive that shy, dependent Maidlin has yet to find the key to adulthood—and that that key is someone else’s need for her.
First published in 1932, the book takes place in February and April, 1929, partly concurrent with A22_Rosamund’s Victory. The cover illustration above shows Ruth Devine at Abinger Hall, going out to pick flowers with the Marchwood twins to send to poor children in London.
There is nothing in this book for folk dancers, except the observation that country dancing from a young age gives one exceptional grace and posture. You can stop reading now if you like.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The story opens with the device that EJO often uses: that of introducing a girl who is not the main heroine but to whom all the back-story will be told or who will interact in a meaningful, though short-term way with the main heroines. Ruth Devine, Mary-Dorothy’s and Bridget (Biddy)’s cousin, is finally back in England. Diamonds have been found on the family farm in South Africa and she is now wealthy and able to travel. When the story begins, she is visiting friends whom she made on-board ship, but soon decides to leave them as she fears that the son of the house is going to propose to her and she doesn’t like him “that way.” She goes to the Abbey to find Maidlin unhappy at being continually called “babe,” “infant,” or “little one,” by Joy, in particular, but also by Rosamund. Joy keeps her adopted daughter swaddled in cotton-wool (a precursor of how she will treat her actual children). Maidlin feels that she has been too sheltered—she’d like to go get a job for a year and learn to live on her income. She wants to know how regular girls live, so that she can better manage her eventual inheritance. Joy squashes this idea. Maidlin, accompanied by Mary-Dorothy, was to visit her estates in Italy—but Mary, visiting Joan Raymond’s family, is in quarantine with them for mumps that one of the children picked up. (Oh, those quarantines—so useful for writers! We know all about quarantines now, don’t we? Only in the books they end after a few weeks so the characters can get on with their lives.) Ruth offers to accompany Maidlin to Paris—from there, the latter will go on to Italy.
While on the train, Ruth confides that she is going to meet another set of friends, Americans, whom she met on the ship—and this one has a son of the house whom she hopes will propose to her. During their Channel crossing, Maidlin confesses that she intends to run away from Joy and the Abbey—she will ask Biddy to help her find a job and live as ordinary girls do for a year. She wants to give the part of her that is the daughter of a north country housemaid a chance to grow. Ruth reluctantly agrees to support her in this endeavor, and gives good advice about trying to be less sensitive and to be more grownup. In the morning Ralph Norman meets the girls at the train and is charming in the “aw, shucks, ma’am” way that English authors used between the wars to represent quaint Americanisms. Maidlin travels on to Aix, where Biddy is at present, and when she gets there, she is met by a strange young woman with a note from Biddy asking her to come to her, as she is ill and needs help. For a moment she fears that the woman is a White Slaver (a sex trafficker—and boy, howdy, is this a jarring touch of reality in this series? White Slavery was indeed a preoccupation of the Twenties and Thirties but there is no precedent for it in EJO’s works), but the use of “Biddums” as the signature reassures her. She follows Annette Pernet to her home in the village of Annecy where she finds Biddy—with a baby! Practically the first words out of Biddy’s mouth are: “I’m married.” This statement suggests that both girls are aware that babies can come without marriage.
Biddy had married Claude Verdier, the nephew of the owner of the firm that she worked for, and there was a big row. The family have long considered nephew Claude a “rotter,” and the owner’s son, Etienne, had also been interested in Biddy, though she was unaware of this. Biddy’s head was turned by Claude’s charms; the fact that she would also become a member of the wealthy family was another allurement—she has always had an eye “for the main chance,” and this flaw has betrayed her. Within a few weeks of the marriage he tired of her and went off to South America. Though this point is not mentioned, he is a Catholic, and divorce is not an option. Monsieur Verdier senior fired Biddy, and she went to Annecy where she has been waitressing for Mme. Pernet. Her letters to and from the family have been secretly forwarded by a friend in Lyons, so that no one actually knows where she is. She has lied to Joy and Mary and the others for more than nine months. Incroyable! This secret is difficult for the reader of today to understand: we have to understand that Biddy is aware of her flaw of trying to get ahead, that she regretted her hasty marriage and was embarrassed to mention both it and her rapid abandonment by her husband, and then there is the baby.
Biddy is not making a good recovery. The Pernets at first fear that Maidlin is too childish to help, but she calms Biddy and becomes a tower of strength. In the throes of what we now call post-partum depression, Biddy threatens to throw herself and the baby out the window if Maidlin doesn’t keep her secret. We see Maidlin quietly and courageously taking control of the situation; she agrees to tell Joy and Mary that Biddy has simply been ill, and that she is going to stay for a while and nurse her, but she is determined to take Biddy and the baby back to England and the Hall. Biddy considers leaving the baby with the Pernets and only visiting her occasionally, but Maidlin won’t allow this. Maidlin asks Biddy if she was “properly” married, as she has heard of French men falsely arranging marriages, and Biddy says that she is sure of it. Maidlin is very sure that Biddy married Claude in order to get an in to the family—she has always been keen to “get on” in life.
While Biddy—whom the Pernets call Madame Bidet, and if you don’t think this is both hilarious and linguistically inconceivable, I do! What was Elsie thinking?—is recuperating, Maidlin gamely pitches in to help the Pernets, waitressing one day when Annette has a migraine. Here she encounters an English family with a young son who admires her (they are not named now, but we will encounter them some episodes ahead—a good example of how EJO recycled characters to weave them into future novels). The Frenchmen in the café much admire her beauty and look at her with Hungry Eyes, and she is forced to spill hot soup on one of them. Even though she is petite, pretty, and girlish-looking, we see that Maidlin can take care of herself! (Left: Maidlin, with a daffodil in her hair, must go back to the English family to retake their order.)
Troubled by her burdens, Maidlin seeks and receives help from God (not named as such, but obvious). She decides that a letter conveying the news to Joy and to Biddy’s sister Mary is insufficient; that Biddy needs to tell her story in person. Maidlin persuades Biddy to go to England—just as she reluctantly agrees, they find out that the Verdiers have put an announcement in The Times asking for “Biddy Devine who married Claude Verdier at Lyons on April 30th, last” to communicate with the family firm. Telegrams start flying: “Is she married?” Chapters eighteen through twenty are titled: Ruth Asks a Question, Rosamund Asks a Question, Everybody Asks Questions. Since the announcement clearly referred to a marriage, what they must be asking is really “is the marriage valid?” There is an element in this questioning that shows that they are aware that Biddy is impulsive and on the make.
Hot-headed Joy is very angry at not hearing the news of the marriage directly from Maidlin, but sensible Jen talks her around. Jen is also the only one to foresee that there might be a baby. The two girls and baby travel back to England. Biddy funks confessing herself, and Maidlin says that she’ll help but that it would be better for Biddy to do it. At the last moment, as the car pulls up to Abinger Hall, Biddy thrusts the baby into Maid’s hands and goes in and confesses.
Everyone makes up and they all sense a difference in Maidlin. She is much more mature. She confesses to Joy that she had planned to run away—to have Biddy find her a job in Lyons and not come back to the Hall for a year. Joy is heart-broken to realize that she does not understand her “first baby.” Wise up, Joy! You don’t understand anybody!
Everyone thinks that Biddy can no longer be Maid’s future secretary, both because of needing to take care of the baby and because her hasty marriage and her concealment of it show that she is irresponsible. Maidlin remains firm that she wants Biddy—however, the Verdier’s news comes that Claude is dead and that Etienne, the son of the firm, actually went all the way to South America to confirm this, believing it possible that Claude would fake the news. Etienne writes that perhaps they can meet again in a few years—and Biddy confesses to Maidlin (again) that she is interested in him. Sir Kenneth Marchwood agrees to be the baby’s godfather and the wealthy heiress Maidlin is the godmother, so Biddy, still with her eye to the main chance, has done well for her baby. Poor Biddy! There are a couple of brief mentions of her in later installments, but she basically fades out of the picture with her fault acknowledged but essentially un-remediated.
For Folk Dancers
There is no dancing. Maidlin sings Way, Way, Edward, Lord Rendal, As I walked out one May morning, The Keeper did a-shooting go, I spent all my money ‘long o’ Sally Brown, and O Shanadar, I love your daughter—the last is really Shenandoah—EJO’s phonetic spelling with the English accent of the “r” added to a word ending with a vowel shows that she heard this song but never saw the words.